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Thursday, Oct 6, 2022

From Midd to Cleveland, Koby Altman ’05 Rises to GM of Cavs

On a late August day in the middle of the NBA offseason, the news broke that the Cleveland Cavaliers were trading Kyrie Irving, their second-leading scorer and four-time all-star who requested a trade in July, to the Boston Celtics. Many people around the NBA applauded Cleveland for getting the return that they did after it became public knowledge that Irving had requested the trade. They were praising Koby Altman ’05, who became Cleveland’s general manager the same day the news was reported. That same Altman graduated from Middlebury just over twelve years before rising to one of the most powerful positions in the National Basketball Association.

Altman did not take a typical route to head coach Jeff Brown’s Middlebury men’s basketball roster. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, a few blocks from where the Barclays Center is now, and was accepted early decision to Middlebury as a part of the third group of Posse scholars at the college in December 2000. Brown heard that Altman was a potential prospect for his team, so he travelled to New York in December shortly after Altman’s acceptance to Middlebury to see him play.

“The recruiting process for Koby was reversed,” Brown said. “He had decided on Middlebury College before I actually I had a chance to watch him play and see where he might fit in. Watching him play I was really confident he had the ability to help our program.”

Altman arrived on campus the following fall in a big class of four other first-years. Brown was entering his fourth season as head coach of the men’s basketball team, and was still trying to build up a program that had only finished over .500 five times since 1980. That season, Altman appeared in 17 out of 25 games, averaging five minutes and one point per game on a team that went 11–14.

He moved into the starting lineup in his sophomore season, starting 13 out of 24 games and upping his scoring average to seven points per game, along with four assists and three rebounds. In his final two seasons, Altman started the majority of games as a point guard for the Panthers.

Brown remembered Altman as a player who filled his role well as a pass-first point guard.

“As a player, Koby was a ball-handler,” Brown said. “He had quickness and a little bit of craftiness to his game. He handled the ball pretty well, was pretty creative going to the basket and finding his teammates. He was a reliable three-point shoot, but never was a big scorer. But he was certainly a great teammate, a hard worker, a player that really understood the game well, and was really a leader on the floor. ”

The team started to make strides during this time as Brown began to mold the program. In Altman’s junior season, the Panthers finished over .500 for the first time in Brown’s sixth year as head coach. To put Brown’s tenure into context, before he took the helm, only two of the 16 coaches in program history had career records over .500.

Altman was there to see the dawn of a new era in Middlebury men’s basketball. In 2008, the Panthers qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time, and have done so seven times since then, including a run to the Final Four in 2011 when they finished 28–2. They also won four Nescac titles from 2009 to 2017, more than any other team in the conference has in that span. Brown, whose record over 20 years is 336–189 and whose winning percentage is .640 (easily the highest in program history), laid the groundwork for his success, while Altman was at Middlebury. He and his teammates helped Brown to establish the foundation that he built the men’s basketball program on.

While at Middlebury, Altman spoke to Brown a lot about being interested in pursuing a career in professional sports.

“Sports was certainly a passion of his,” Brown said. “He certainly developed some great leadership skills before Middlebury and here at Middlebury.”

Brown saw in Altman many of the important attributes that make for successful coaches and people in professional sports front offices.

“He really was a connector,” Brown said. “He had really strong relationships with all of his teammates, was very engaging, and funny at times. He was really a great leader, with work ethic and communication.

“His personality is so engaging. His teammates really enjoyed speaking with him. He just had one of those personalities that just really kind of captured his teammates.”

When talking about Altman as a person, Brown cracked a smile, as he remembered his former player’s time on his team. Although Altman’s playing career ended after his time under Brown at Middlebury, his leadership skills and engaging personality and his ability to connect people on and off the court, Brown knew, would certainly help him when he left Middlebury.

But after graduating from Middlebury in 2005, Altman went down a different path than a career in professional sports: He took a job at Friedman-Roth Realty, a commercial real estate firm in Manhattan. Back in New York, Altman would take his lunch four blocks away from his office at Xavier High School, where he would spend an hour helping out with the freshman basketball team.

Altman spent three years at Friedman-Roth, then began his basketball in earnest. He left New York to enroll in a master’s program in sports management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. While studying at UMass, Altman also joined the men’s basketball coaching staff at Amherst College, of all places, under legendary head coach David Hixon. His first year there (2007–8), Amherst beat Middlebury in their only matchup. Then in Altman’s second season, the Mammoths won in the regular season, but Brown and the Panthers defeated the Mammoths 77–68 in the Nescac championship game for its first conference title.

In his second year at UMass, Altman got paired with his mentor Sean Ford, the director for men’s programs at USA basketball. Through Ford, Altman served as a manager on the USA Under-19 and Under-17 teams that won gold medals in 2009 and 2010, respectively. In his second year with USA basketball, Altman entered the DI ranks for the first time as a graduate assistant at Southern Illinois in the Missouri Valley Conference. Then he moved back to New York to become an assistant at Columbia, who was looking for a quantitative assistant coach. It paid off for Altman, who still wanted to break into professional sports. At Columbia, he got connected with Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant.

In 2012, Cleveland hired Altman as their manager of pro personnel. He was there when the Cavs had the first overall pick in the draft twice, he was there when LeBron James returned to Cleveland, and he was there when they won their first NBA championship in team history. After the championship in 2016, Altman was promoted to assistant general manager under David Griffin. The following season, Cleveland returned to the finals, but lost in five games to the Warriors. Griffin’s contract expired after the season, and he and Cleveland parted ways after not coming to terms on an extension.

Altman stepped in as the head of Cleveland’s front office on an interim basis as the ownership conducted its search. 35 days after Griffin and the Cavs parted ways, and high profile candidates like 2004 NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups considered and were considered for the job, Cleveland named Altman its next general manager on Monday, July 24, 2017. At 34 years old, the second-youngest general manager in the NBA, Altman took the helm of the team that had appeared in three consecutive finals won its first championship less than two years ago, but then parted ways with the general manager of the team during those years.

If that were not enough pressure to perform, Altman also entered a situation fraught with internal tension. The same day Altman was hired, it was reported that Irving requested a trade from Cleveland. On top of that, rumors swirled around LeBron all summer, wondering whether he would depart after his contract expires at the end of this season.

Altman certainly entered a difficult position, but that is the nature of professional sports management. To trade one of your best players to your biggest conference rival is a difficult choice, but quite probably necessary because of Irving’s request. With so little leverage, Altman did an admiral job turning Irving into Isaiah Thomas, a two-time all-star and Boston’s leading scorer the last three seasons, Jae Crowder, a versatile forward on offense and defense, Ante Zizic, an intriguing young big man, Brooklyn’s 2018 first round pick that could easily turn into a top-5 selection in next year’s draft, and Miami’s 2020 second round pick.

Considering the many steps Altman took from Middlebury to Cleveland, it is easy to forget Altman graduated from Middlebury 10 years ago. He rose very quickly from college student, to real estate agent, to unpaid graduate assistant, to being employed by the Cleveland Cavaliers, to general manager of the Cavaliers. But Brown remembers what Altman told him and envisioned then that Altman could make a mark on professional sports.

“Koby was able to capitalize on his great leadership skills,” Brown said. “I’m certainly not surprised that he has elevated to the level he is at with the Cavaliers.”